As he writes a novel, Ron Hansen posts his ideal “cast” of characters on his wall so he can remember what they look like.
His ideal Robert Ford wasn’t cast for the film version of his historical fiction novel “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” but he said Casey Affleck was a more sympathetic-looking Bob, anyway. So it worked out alright in the end — for everyone except that no-good gangster Jesse James.
“I think I am drawn to outlaws — to people living on the edges,” Hansen said. “Writers often see themselves beyond the boundaries in a sense, probably because we’ve chosen to do something beyond the edge of what most people would choose to do.”
In his two-day residence as Hillsdale’s Spring 2017 Visiting Writer, Hansen read stories about Nebraska blizzards and gangsters in the old West, revealed the underpinnings of Shakespeare and Scripture in his work, talked about conducting research on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins with the biographer Paul Mariani, and reminisced about writing screenplays for Brad Pitt and company.
It’s the type of variety that makes one’s head spin, but the Nebraska-born author, short story writer, screenwriter, and professor at Santa Clara University in California ropes these adventurous stories all together with a vibrant writing style enlivened by his tireless curiosity about the lives of those around him.
Hansen’s most recent novel is perhaps more clearly connected to the rest of his corpus than his other works: “The Kid” completes what he called “sort of a trilogy of Westerns” about these often misunderstood or over-mythologized characters. The other two are “Desperadoes,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Hansen read from the scene when Billy the Kid receives his death sentence, following a common theme in his Westerns: in the Old West, outlaws’ legends often dwarfed them even in their lifetime. The birth and death of such legends was often a mystery to both offending criminal and offended (and sometimes adoring) audience.
“Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang by the neck until he was dead, dead, dead,” Hansen read. “Billy’s response to that? ‘And you can go to hell, hell, hell.’”
“I really like that about him,” Hansen said.
It’s this sort of spunk and joie de vivre that Hansen looks to recreate in all his fiction; in tying together his wide-ranging work, he describes the short story as a really great party — but one that only lasts three or four hours.
“A novel, on the other hand, is like a whole summer vacation; it gives me time to make myself at home,” Hansen said.
And writing screenplays, like the one for the film version of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” give him the chance not only to use a writing style that he describes as his “cinematic imagination,” but also to work with actors like Affleck and Pitt in recreating the legend of Jesse James.
Hansen was surrounded by James’s old West — or echoes of it, which resonate just as well for a historical fiction writer — in his childhood home in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Nebraska is the kind of place where you can still feel what it was like to live a hundred years ago,” Hansen said. “It creates this beautiful, open landscape for the imagination.”
Hansen spent 24 years living in the Midwest: in Omaha, where he studied at Creighton University, and Iowa, where he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop with John Irving and John Cheever.
Hansen said he learned his most valuable lessons as a writer while living in Irving’s basement as his “live-in babysitter.” Irving chose not to live the wild life of a Ernest Hemingway or an Oscar Wilde. Instead, his life is normal and routine, centered around writing “without living a creepy life.”
Though he may not have shootouts and shipwrecks in his personal history, Hansen may be too modest about his normal life as a writer: he has recited Shakespeare while jumping out of planes while in training with the Army, and he has shamelessly trespassed on a monastery where Hopkins, the poet and Jesuit priest, used to live.
Still, this was all in service to his work, and junior Chandler Ryd found that the normalcy of Hansen’s life allowed him to focus on the drama of his colorful fiction.
“He just seems so normal,” Ryd said. “That’s what left the biggest impact on me: there’s always this sense that I have to live an exotic, painful, somehow interesting life to be a writer.”
Professor of English John Somerville said the interplay between Hansen’s life and work struck him, as well.
“That’s one of the impressive things about Ron Hansen. He’s so decent, so gracious and generous,” Somerville said. “Then you recall how immensely talented he is, and the many fine stories and novels he’s written. And you wonder, why is he even listening to me?”
But the simple way in which Hansen approaches his fiction also played into the violent and difficult themes in some of his work.
“Hansen said his goal is to think about the world as if he were still a boy, when the world seemed so much bigger than him,” Ryd said. “That’s interesting given the violent themes in his work.”
“Wickedness,” Ryd’s favorite of Hansen’s stories, about the devastating Nebraska blizzard of 1888, presents a vision of the “bigness” and power of nature pressing down on characters in a whirlwind of vignettes.
And the questions only get bigger the deeper one digs into Hansen’s work: his novel “Mariette in Ecstasy” centers around a nun who apparently receives stigmata. “Exiles” recreates Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” focusing on five nuns who perished in the shipwreck. Even a Western like his Jesse James novel is not devoid of difficulty: Hansen said the structure drew from the stories of Judas in the Gospels and Julius Caesar’s betrayal as dramatized in Shakespeare.
“When I’m writing a story, I like to put characters ‘in extremis,’’’ Hansen said. “I ask the question, ‘What do people do when stretched to the utmost?’”
Hansen’s next novel will take the central character in “Mariette in Ecstasy” even a step further; he plans to follow the former nun’s life as a battlefield nurse in World War I.
The novel is in its early stages, so there may not even be a picture of Mariette on Hansen’s wall yet. But as he researches and writes the sequel, his readers can expect Hansen to follow the command that Mariette receives in response to her prayers about her future in “Mariette in Ecstasy”: